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How GreatAmerica Financial Services Found Its ‘Why’

In a world of financial giants, how has GreatAmerica Financial Services grown — essentially every year — since 1992? The answer involves culture and finding your ‘why.’ That sounds like a cliche — until you spend some time with CEO Tony Golobic (pictured), President Stan Herkelman, EVP and COO David Pohlman, EVP and CFO Joe Terfler, and other team members.

GreatAmerica’s executive team and other leaders met with channel partners Thursday morning at the company’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa headquarters. From office equipment specialists to unified communications and IT experts, channel partners depend on GreatAmerica for a range of financial services.

To understand GreatAmerica’s culture you need to rewind to CEO Tony Golobic’s immigration to the United States. He came to the country as a 17-year-old high school dropout in the 1960s. He spoke no English upon his arrival. Within two days of landing in America, Golobic landed a job in a boiler room — working in extreme temperatures in the basement of a building. His first paycheck around 1962 was for roughly $360.

For Golobic that paycheck was an “aha moment.” He had never seen so much money, and thought to himself: “What a great country.”

Those words foreshadowed GreatAmerica’s eventual launch and brand identity decades later.

Rising From the Proverbial Basement

After those early days in the United States, Golobic went on to earn degrees from Roosevelt University in 1969 and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in 1971. He also is a combat veteran of the U.S. Army service in Vietnam.

From there, Golobic climbed the ladder within Corporate America. Prior to founding GreatAmerica, he was GM of GE Capital Office Technology Financial Services; president and CEO of LeaseAmerica Corp.; and senior VP of Mellon Financial Services.

Amid that success, Golobic reached a realization: Companies generally say employees are their greatest assets. They also say customers come first. But too often in Corporate America, next quarters’ earnings seemed more important than employees and customers.

“That’s when I thought to myself: What if I had a company that truly meant employees are their greatest asset and customers truly come first,” he says. “I realized I had to be in control of a company to achieve this.” Despite having a family to support, Golobic quit his job to build that type of company in 1992 — launching GreatAmerica Financial Services.

Golobic Finds His ‘Why’

Golobic’s vision certainly faced some massive challenges. Helping good, credit-worthy businesses was the territory of big banks with deep pockets. GreatAmerica, nevertheless, wanted to compete against the giants — and stand out from them. “The values of hard work, integrity and a team environment were the only way to compete,” he says. “In the early days customer service was all we had.”

GreatAmerica was built using a ‘culture by design’ mindset. “Vision and principles are powerful tools for success,” he says. “But only if you mean them. Our vision — essentially the pursuit of excellence or greatness — came from me. Everything else came from our employees.”

The company’s mission: “We help our customers achieve greater success.”

Scaling Culture

As the company grew from five employees to 45 employees in the early 1990s, it became more challenging to ensure all employees understood their roles in customer and business outcomes.

“It’s easy to be very good when you’re small with 5 employees,” says Golobic. “Everyone understands how their input impacts the company output. When you get to 100 to 200 employees, the connections start to change. Many folks don’t know how they influence the outcome.”

Instead of risking a corporate culture breakdown, the company rented a hotel in the early 1990s for a weekend. All 45 employees attended the weekend gathering. They spent those two days away from their families, developing a list of company principles — which essentially defines how GreatAmerica behaves.

Those values remain in place today — with the addition of Innovation in recent years (see below):

ga-principles

A Stunning Statement (And Its Impact)

While GreatAmerica has retained its core principles the past two decades, the company has also dealt with another difficult realty. As Golobic puts it:

“Growth is the enemy of excellence and culture.”

The obvious question: How does GreatAmerica grow every year without destroying its excellence and its culture? The answer involves:

  • Controlled, reasonable growth. GreatAmerica doesn’t like to grow more than 15 percent each year. Anything faster than that is difficult to manage and maintain, the company believes. “Even low single-digit growth is good,” says Golobic.
  • The company organizes the business around team environments. Originally, the teams contained as many as 28 people but that figure was too large. Today’s teams typically involve 12 to 14 people each, and it’s working well.
  • GreatAmerica only hires about 2 percent of applicants. “We’re not looking for experience or expertise,” Golobic says. “We’re looking for values. Once you’re 25 years old I can’t instill values in you. I need to look for people who have the elements of our culture. And then we will continually enforce the culture. People who don’t believe in your culture will start to undermine you.”

Growth and  Succession Planning

To be extra clear, GreatAmerica doesn’t fear growth. It simply wants to pursue the right type of growth, at the right pace, in the right markets.

“Growth is essential,” President Stan Herkelman asserts. “It’s essential for scale, and to provide opportunity for team members.”

Those team members, meanwhile, certainly seem to value GreatAmerica’s culture. According to an August 2016 survey of employees:

  • 95 percent are proud to work at GreatAmerica
  • 98 percent believe in the GreatAmerica Vision
  • 96 percent understand how their work contributes to GreatAmerica’s vision and goals
  • 97 percent enjoy the the culture and work environment
  • 96 percent enjoy work with the people in their team
  • 92 percent consistently tell people GreatAmerica is a great place to work

No IPO, No Exit?

So what’s next? Golobic has no plans to sell or IPO the company. Instead, GreatAmerica’s current leaders are accountable for employee development and succession planning — which rank among the most important priorities within the business, Golobic asserts.

During an open Q&A, I openly wondered if GreatAmerica networks with like-minded privately held companies to share ideas. COO David Pohlman mentioned a handful of examples, but noted that most of the company’s culture development and refinement happens in-house.

Still, GreatAmerica shares a range of best practices across the IT channel — working closely with organizations like HTG Peer Groups.

At a time when so many technology companies and financial businesses must answer to Wall Street’s every demand, GreatAmerica wants to remain a rare find, indeed.

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